Progress Report: How Far Has Interoperability Come Since 9/11?

With billions invested in interoperability, why does it seem like agencies are still at square one?

by / August 17, 2010

Almost nine years after the 9/11 attacks, most people look back with admiration at the efforts of emergency responders on the scene. And rightly so - men and women from all backgrounds risked and lost their lives trying to help minimize the death toll. Yet from the ashes arose a nagging question: Why couldn't public safety agencies communicate more effectively?

In addition to setting the stage for the global war on terrorism, 9/11 also served to spotlight the inadequacies of the communications technology used by first responders. Critical information fell on deaf ears and in one case led to a fire brigade in the north World Trade Center tower being unable to hear commands to evacuate. New York City lost 121 firefighters in the north tower that day because their radios could not receive warnings issued by the city's police department.

Outcry demanding interoperable communications technology was loud and swift. In response, during a February 2004 speech at George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, then-Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Tom Ridge said the DHS had "identified technical specifications for a baseline interoperable communication system" and that if state and local agencies adopted such specifications, "by the end of 2004, most first responders will have a way to communicate with each other during a crisis, regardless of frequency or mode of communication."

Ridge also said the DHS wanted to, "ensure that when federal money is spent, it fosters interoperability." Billions have been spent in pursuit of this goal, including $1.8 billion in DHS grants for interoperability in 2008. But a singular question emergency personnel still face when entering a disaster situation remains - will my radio work?

Vendor Payday?

If one were to look at the huge amount of money thrown at the interoperability problem and compare that to current results, or lack thereof, an easily drawn conclusion is that technology vendors are taking grant spending but not delivering on the hardware. But few in emergency management circles believe this is simply a case of vendors jobbing the system. In fact, Harlin McEwen, chairman of the Communications and Technology Committee for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said interoperable communications technology has progressed as expected and that vendors are simply doing what they're supposed to - make money.

"I don't think that this has been a vendor giveaway," he said. "Obviously they're in business to make money, and the more consumers they have, the better."

Rather, McEwen said he has seen public safety technology undergo a long overdue technology refresh, which has coincided with the push toward creating more interoperable communication networks.

Most experts like McEwen agree that the lack of interoperability in public safety communications isn't a technology problem. The lion's share of federal spending on interoperable communications has been directed at hardware. A June 2009 study from the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), titled Emergency Communications: Vulnerabilities Remain and Limited Collaboration and Monitoring Hamper Federal Efforts, noted that "Since Sept. 11, 2001, state and local jurisdictions, as well as the private sector, have invested billions of dollars to build and enhance existing communications systems."

The study aimed to investigate, among other things, the vulnerabilities in emergency communications systems, especially when put to the test in 9/11- and Hurricane Katrina-type scenarios.

David Wise, the GAO's Physical Infrastructure Issues director, assisted with the study. Wise said that in his assessment, technology is evolving quickly to meet interoperability demands. It's the agencies themselves - specifically procurement rules and refresh schedules - that hamper interoperability efforts.

The people versus technology issues are well known to anyone working in IT. Whether it's an enterprise resource planning deployment, migration to a standard e-mail system or interoperable communications, the technology is usually ready but the users aren't.

But public safety officials are making progress. It's

safe to say that almost every agency now realizes the importance of interoperable communication. And just as many are eager to get their hands on radios that work seamlessly with other devices. But there are a number of built-in obstacles that have yet to be overcome. As Wise explained, the sheer number of agencies that respond to an emergency - even the type of agencies that respond - can wreak havoc on efforts to build interoperable systems.

"One of the things that we talked about in our report, we noted that some first responders in Florida, Massachusetts and Washington had some frustrations with neighboring jurisdictions and just how they would communicate with each other in the event of a disaster," Wise said. "We pointed out in the report that working cooperatively with others and reducing those tensions has become increasingly important as more jurisdictions get involved, such as public works departments, which can also be viewed as first responders. And they also have to participate in emergency communications. There are a lot of players in this and it's just something that agencies and local and state governments, and even the federal government need to keep working at."

Communication for Communication

The key to successful interoperable communications systems is for users themselves to communicate with one another before a disaster strikes. In Homeland Security's Billion-Dollar Bet on Better Communications, a February 2010 paper from the Center for Public Integrity, significant time is spent investigating how little time is spent building human relationships among regional public safety agencies - to say nothing of forging bonds on a national scale. The paper noted that "One academic study of DHS grant spending found that strong planning and coordination correlated with success at creating interoperability, while simply increasing funding did not. Chicago, for instance, has received more than $220 million from the Urban Area Security Initiative grant program. Yet, in a 2007 evaluation of cities nationwide, the city earned [the] DHS' lowest score on governance, which measured the strength of the formal agreements that provide a foundation for communications planning."

Such findings strongly suggest that there is no "right amount" of money to solve the interoperability issue. Instead, it's a matter of agencies aligning their goals, procurement and technology - not just one or the other.

Officials in Prince George's County, Md., recently celebrated the launch of its new 700 MHz public safety communications radio system. But surrounding jurisdictions are likely just as pleased, since Prince George's County was the last in the region to build such a system. The county was - as Wayne McBride, deputy director of Prince George's County Public Safety Communications, puts it - "the hole in the doughnut."

The $76 million endeavor involved building 21 new communications tower sites and serves a total of 29 agencies within the county, all of which can now effectively communicate with surrounding jurisdictions. According to McBride, the county's system provides genuine regional interoperability.

"In the National Capital Region, we have interoperability," he said. "We share system keys with 12 other jurisdictions, other counties, not counting just the municipalities in Prince George's County. So we have 65,000 users that have day-to-day, seamless, low-friction interoperability by just switching talk groups, switching systems."

McBride, who is a former police officer and a volunteer firefighter, said procurement procedures are a limiting factor in terms of building interoperable communications systems at any level - local, state and federal.

"The problem with national or even regional or statewide interoperability with the locals is the procurement process," he said, using his own Region 20 as an example. Region 20 includes Maryland, northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. Common procurement rules among the jurisdictions in that region have led to near-100 percent interoperability. Yet for a national system, other regions' procurement rules make standardizing equipment difficult, not to mention standardizing on policy and


When it comes to communication, sometimes it's not the public safety officials who need to talk it out. In many cases, it's the politicians controlling the purse strings who could benefit, at least from public safety's perspective. Prince George's County was lucky, McBride said, to get a county executive in Jack B. Johnson, who understood and communicated the value of interoperable communications. Prior to Johnson, who took office in 2002, McBride said the political will didn't exist to demand interoperable communication.

"Mr. Johnson started in 2002, 9/11 happened in 2001, so the previous politicians were not faced with a catastrophe such as 9/11, so they didn't understand," McBride said. "In my opinion, they didn't have the stomach to commit a taxpayer's dollars to something they just didn't feel was important. So it was hard to make somebody who never uses a radio understand the importance of two-way communication for first responders. It's hard to make a politician [understand] - they see a price tag of $60 million or $50 million or whatever, so all the credit in the world has to be given to Mr. Johnson. He was the first elected official who understood the importance and committed the resources."

So how far along is public safety toward the goal of interoperability? At a minimum, farther than it was. A number of waivers, for example, are being granted by the FCC for jurisdictions, such as Seattle and Boston, looking to build their own regional public safety broadband network. Such networks could eventually serve as the backbone for a national system.

For Wise, recalling the work he put in conducting the GAO study, he puts public safety at a point equidistant from just starting on interoperability and achieving a nationwide system.

"It's not as if things have stood still since 2001, but there is still a ways to go," Wise said. "But we did see, compared to what had happened in the intervening years, some definite forward movement in this area. So whether or not you reach Nirvana, I think that things are certainly better than they were, and everybody we met certainly was on the same page in terms of having the goal of improving interoperability, but there are just certain practical limitations that are still somewhat difficult to overcome."


Chad Vander Veen

Chad Vander Veen previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.

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